Longing to Belong – A Prodigal Prequel, Genesis 32:3-8, 22-31

[Sermon preached at Northwest UMC, October 8, 2017]

Do you remember what it was like to be at summer camp or some other foreign place and be so miserably homesick that you thought you would die? I certainly do. The gospel song that says, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” describes that horrible feeling for me. But homesickness is not just a childhood disease. Adolescence, mid-life crises, old age are all recurring outbreaks of homesickness—of feeling broken and alone in a strange world where we wonder what we’re doing here? This week after another horrific massacre of innocent people in Las Vegas I’m very homesick for a world with less violence and hate.

Some homesickness is quite normal. As teens or young adults we are the ones who think we want freedom and our own space. We are the ones who get embarrassed when our parents want to hug and kiss us in public because we’re much too grown up for that kid stuff. And that’s OK. It’s all part of growing up. And we’re the ones who think God’s rules for living are too confining, too old-fashioned, and certainly our parents are. We can do much better on our own. And that’s OK too. So we go out on our own and we blow it, not once, but several times, and that’s also OK because we learn from those experiences. But what isn’t OK is when we are too proud to admit that we were wrong or that we really do need help.

It’s hard to admit we’re wrong. People just love to say, “I told you so,” don’t they? So we don’t even try to be reconciled with family or friends or even with God because we’re afraid we’ll be rejected or ridiculed. That’s where our friend Jacob finds himself in our Scripture for today. What we have in Chapter 32 is just a snippet of the story of Jacob that takes up half of the book of Genesis. It’s a fascinating saga so full of deception, incest, polygamy, fake murders and kidnapping that it could be mistaken for a modern day soap opera. I’d recommend taking the time to read or re-read the whole story because we can only deal with one brief but very dramatic episode today. The bad blood between Jacob and his twin brother Esau that is the impetus for what we read today begins back in Genesis 25 when Jacob, still in utero, grabs the heel of Esau and tries to pull him back into the womb so he, Jacob, could claim the prize of being Isaac’s first born.

As a young adult Jacob, true to form, tricks his near-sighted old father into giving him the blessing that by custom belonged to the eldest son Esau. And because of his underhanded tactics Jacob has to flee from his angry brother to the land of Haran where he lives and prospers with his Uncle Laban. The details of how Jacob and Laban take turns deceiving each other and have a falling out many years later is fascinating – but that will have to be a teaser for another sermon. Except to say that it sets the stage for why we find Jacob in our text today heading back to Canaan to finally face the brother he cheated.

Anyone here have any conflicts in your family? Sure we do, we all do so much that there are times when I think the term “dysfunctional family” is redundant. Conflict in human relationships is inevitable unless we choose to keep our relationships superficial. Some of us are like comedian Ron White who says, “I had the right to remain silent, I just didn’t have the ability.” And introverts like me are often so quiet nobody knows what we’re thinking. Neither extreme is satisfying because both leave us feeling inauthentic and homesick.

We live in a time of terrible isolation and loneliness. We live in houses or apartments in close proximity to other people but don’t really know our neighbors. The Las Vegas shooter was so much a loner that none of his neighbors or his own brother really knew him, maybe not even the woman he lived with. And tellingly his brother said they never really knew their father either. We may never know the reason he killed and maimed so many innocent people, and it’s even less likely that we will ever know the depth of the loneliness or homesickness that drove him to do the unspeakable.

None of that is to make any excuses for mass murder, but it is a call for all of us to come clean about our own homesickness. Where in our lives have we alienated ourselves from others? Where have we failed to love our neighbors because we simply don’t know them? What guilt or disagreement has driven us to move away from family or friends, or to withdraw within ourselves? I heard a great quote from James Baldwin this week on NPR. He said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Jacob was homesick. In his message to Esau he says, “I have lived with Laban as an alien.” He is heading home and dreading the inevitable confrontation with the brother he has wronged. Jacob is imagining the worst – that he will get his just desserts; and so he does everything he can think of to appease his brother. He sends Esau enough gifts to rival the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. In one section of Chapter 32 that we skipped today for brevity there is an inventory of all the livestock Jacob sends ahead to Esau with his messengers, and the list totals 530 head of livestock. Jacob also bows and scrapes by addressing Esau repeatedly as “my lord” while referring to himself as Esau’s servant. To his credit Jacob is very transparent about what he’s doing. He concludes his message to Esau by saying that he has sent these gifts “in order that I may find favor in your sight.” The only thing missing is an actual apology for cheating his brother out of his birthright, but that may be expecting too much.

Jacob’s messengers return from their mission to report that Esau is coming to meet him. That sounds promising, but then the messengers add the kicker – he’s got 400 men with him. That’s like challenging your big brother to a game of basketball and being told he’s bringing LeBron James and the Cavs with him!

“Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed,” verse 7 tells us, and he devises a clever plan to save his hide, even if it means putting others, including his wives and kids at risk. He divides his large company into two groups, thinking that if one group is destroyed by Esau and his army the others will be able to escape.
Finally as a last resort Jacob does what he should have done first – he prays. Anyone else ever forget to pray until things get tough or is that just me? We didn’t read this part either but in his prayer Jacob does two things. As we would expect he prays for God to deliver him, but before that he does something even more important that we can all learn from. Listen to what he says in verses 9-10: “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ 10 I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies.”

Jacob acknowledges all that God has done for him and his ancestors in uncharacteristic humility, but then he reminds God of the promises God made to him that convinced him to come back home and face the music. Why would he need to do that? Surely God doesn’t forget his promises! No, Jacob is reminding himself who he belongs to, he’s claiming his blessing from God, and we’ll see how he does that again in much more dramatic fashion in the best-known part of this text.

After Jacob prays and sends his family across the river we are told “Jacob was left alone.” He is really alone. Jacob is like you and me. We try to cure our homesickness with a host of home remedies—large doses of education, exercise—be it running marathons or climbing corporate ladders, accumulating social media friends who fill our time and the lack of peace we feel. Power, money, prestige, new cars, new clothes, new houses, new jobs, new spouses, booze, beauty treatments, Grecian Formula. We try it all don’t we? But when we let our defenses down and find ourselves alone with nothing to do—remember those were the times the homesickness got you at camp too? When we’re not too busy to think and feel, then the old feeling sneaks up on us and we start feeling like that motherless child again.

“Jacob is alone” Genesis says, “and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” But this is no ordinary man and the wrestling match is not the WWF! These two combatants struggle all night long and the match is still a draw as morning approaches, although Jacob’s hip will never be the same. And the man says, “let me go, for the day is breaking.” That’s our first clue that this is no ordinary man. This is God and they both know that if any mortal sees the face of God he or she will die. God is protecting Jacob even as they struggle by warning him not to see God’s face. But Jacob refuses to let go unless God blesses him. Jacob realizes that God’s blessing is more important than life itself, and after God gives Jacob a new name “Israel” because he has striven with God and prevailed God blesses Jacob and the struggle is over as abruptly as it began.

It is after wrestling with God and only then that Jacob is ready to meet his brother. Like another prodigal son that Jesus talked about, it is an encounter with God that gives us courage to confess and face our human struggles. Jacob had to wrestle all night long, and sometimes those dark nights can last for weeks or years, but if we can hang on to God above all else, morning will come and with it the courage to carry on.

I slept in last Monday and as I got up I remember thinking that I had missed my usual breakfast with the CBS Morning News team. Unfortunately the news of the massacre in Las Vegas lasted all day. The cumulative effect of bad news stories recently, each one worse than the last, knocked me into a funk that lasted several days. I’d probably still be there if I didn’t have this sermon to prepare. Sermons are a constant reminder to preachers that no matter how we are feeling, Sunday’s coming!

That’s important for all of us, not just preachers. We Christians worship on Sunday because that’s the day of Christ’s resurrection; and that is our reminder that no matter how bad the news is or how dark the skies are – Sunday’s coming. I gladly borrow that phrase from the great preacher Tony Campolo who made it famous in a Good Friday sermon entitled “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Coming!”

When personal or national tragedies threaten to blow us away we can be like Lt. Dan in the movie “Forrest Gump.” Lt. Dan got his legs blown off in Viet Nam and was angry at Forrest for saving his life. But a few years later he is reunited with Forrest and helps him run the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. In one great scene Dan and Forrest are out on their shrimp boat during Hurricane Carmen. Double amputee Lt. Dan climbs the mast of the ship as the waves are crashing onto the deck below and he shouts at God, “Is that all you’ve got? You call that a storm?” This foul-mouthed atheist has learned in the school of hard knocks that life goes on if we just hang on till morning comes. Psalm 30 puts it this way: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

Anyone here have trouble handling big changes in life? That’s homesickness. Because change, even positive change, is hard, and much of the division in our nation today is because change is coming at us at warp speed. We are so homesick for a simpler day that we resent those who represent change – immigrants, people of different races or faiths or political opinions. And on top of that this baby boomer is homesick for the things my aging body just won’t do anymore. We seniors are eager for younger folks to take over leadership of businesses and families and churches, but darn it the younger generation doesn’t always do it the way we’ve done it for years.

Being an itinerant United Methodist pastor has comes with built in homesickness. Like people in many professions and businesses we move a lot, and that makes it hard to know where home really is. I grew up in the small town of Wapakoneta in northwest Ohio. Wapak is where I’m from but I rarely go back there. My parents moved away from there while I was in college, and I moved away intellectually as I accumulated multiple degrees in higher education. I still have several aunts and uncles back there in Auglaize County, but I’m ashamed to admit I’ve been on a 50 year ego trip that has kept me away from that extended family. None of them went to college and as my theology and worldview changed over the years I felt like we just didn’t have anything in common. I don’t want to argue about religion or politics with them, and quite frankly I felt superior.

Over Labor Day weekend this year I went back home with my two sisters. I must give my sisters credit for initiating the trip. It was my one sister’s 50th high school reunion, and while we were there they suggested we visit our three uncles who live there.

It was a marvelous experience with all three of them but the priceless moment came when we visited the one we call Uncle Frog in the hospital. He’s just 15 years older than I; so when I was a kid he was a big strong athletic guy that I adored. He took time to play catch with me and made me feel like I mattered. Now he’s 86 and has a very bad heart. He knows he doesn’t have long to live. He called me over to his hospital bed and got very emotional as he tried to ask me something, but the words wouldn’t come. I knew he wanted me to conduct his funeral when the time comes because we had talked about that after another uncle’s funeral 10 years ago when Frog was still in good health. As I held his hand and assured him I’d be there for him I realized I was home.

We can go home again if we’re willing to struggle and cling on to God’s blessing which is always wherever we are on life’s journey. Beyond the beliefs and ideologies that divide us is a deeper human bond we all share. It’s love that bridges those divisions but we have to cross that bridge to get home.

There was a movie many years ago called “The Poseidon Adventure” about a group of people who were trapped in a ship that got turned upside down in a storm. Isn’t that how life feels sometimes? Like everything is upside down and we can’t find our way home. The theme song from that movie captures the truth that Jacob learned wrestling with God. The song says, “There’s got to be a morning after if we can hold on through the night.” Whatever darkness or struggle you are facing – just hang on to God till morning comes.

Jacob refuses to let go till God blesses him, and in the strength of that blessing he immediately goes to meet his brother. What happens then is summed up in this description from Genesis 33: “He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” The prodigal was limping, but he was home.
Amen

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“Set in Stone: Rock Solid,” Matthew 16:13-20

One of the curiosities in my family is that previous generations had a real thing for nicknames. My paternal grandmother’s name was Vesta Verola and that’s no April fool! If anyone ever needed a nickname she did, and hers was Dottie. My maternal grandfather was Alma Webster, and he too qualified; but I’m not sure that his nickname, Hooker, was any better than Alma! Maybe his unusual names explain why 4 of his sons all went by different handles than their given Christian names. My uncle Carl was Bud, Forest became Frog, John Franklin always went by Hank, and the youngest Gary was Butch. Why Uncle Bill was always just Bill I do not know.

I bring that up not to confirm that I come by my weirdness honestly, but because in our Scripture for this morning Matthew tells us how Jesus’ disciple Simon got his nickname. Jesus says, “Simon, son of Jonah….. You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” The Aramaic word Cephas that we translate as ‘Peter’ is very similar to the word for ‘rock;’ so saying Peter is the rock on which the church will be founded is a clever play on words that is lost in the English translation. At least one commentator suggests that it would be better if we just called Simon “Rock” instead of “Peter” so we remember this life-changing moment in Simon Peter’s life.

It’s like the Hebrew Scriptures telling us that when Abram and Sarai accepted God’s covenant to be the parents of God’s chosen people they were given new names, Abraham and Sarah. Or when Jacob became Israel, which means something like “one who has wrestled with God.” These change of names mark critical turning points, just like marriage when one or both partners takes a new name to signify a sacred transition after which we are never the same.

Jesus didn’t ask Simon if he wanted to be the Rock, he just says, “Simon, you are the Rock,” and that’s the end of discussion. But why did Jesus pick Simon to be the Rock? I’m glad you asked since that is what I want to talk about today! Simon was always a larger than life character, an extrovert, always ready with an answer to any question, even if it was wrong. He was like the kid in class who no matter what the teacher asked, she always was waving her hand in the air the highest to say, “Pick me, teacher. I know! I know!” Simon was the only one of the disciples brave enough to get out of the boat and try to walk on water to Jesus, until he sank like a rock! Maybe that’s where Jesus got the idea? Simon was chosen first when Jesus was picking his disciples; so maybe he had seniority. He was certainly one of the inner circle, along with James and John, who were with Jesus at the most critical moments of his ministry.

At any rate I’m pretty sure Simon the Rock was flattered to be chosen. I can see a bumper sticker on Simon’s parents’ camel that said, “Our son is an honor student chosen to be The Rock.” Simon is the one when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” who correctly identifies Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus’ could have just given him a gold star or a pat on the head. After all God had given the answer to that question at Jesus’ baptism and several of the disciples had already proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah back in chapter 14. But Jesus asks again here because this is final exam time. Jesus knows the jig is about up. He’s very soon heading to Jerusalem for the last time and he wants to know if his motley crew of disciples is ready to take over when he’s gone. So he asks for assurance that they get it. And Simon offers the correct answer and he’s the chosen keeper of the keys to the Kingdom.

But when we look closely at Simon’s full resume we have to scratch our heads a bit at this choice for rockhood. And we don’t have to go far. In the very next paragraph after the words we read this morning we begin to see that Simon the Rock may not be as rock solid as we’d hope. He and the others know who Jesus is, but they still don’t’ really know. Verse 21, the very next verse after our text for today says, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”

You think Jesus is having a little buyers’ remorse? His chosen rock is suddenly called a “stumbling-block” because his mind is set on human things – like staying alive—and not on doing God’s will no matter what. And we know this is just a preview of bigger failures to come. But this lack of faith immediately after he gets his new name is enough to make us wonder, Why Simon? Were there no other candidates? Was he the least of 12 evils?
Before we come down too hard on Peter, let’s remember last week’s sermon. I was impressed that Mebane was willing to preach to a whole congregation armed with stones, but then I guess she was pretty confident that no one without sin was going to cast the first stone. The point is we are all fallible human beings. There’s no other choice for Jesus to pick rock solid disciples except from the likes of us!!!!

Remember none of the 12 disciples had impressive resumes. The Gospels don’t tell us how or why Jesus picked the group he did. In most cases we are just told he saw them, fishermen, tax collector, and a bunch who are not identified by profession, and, perhaps here’s the key, these are the ones were immediately are willing to leave their nets, their parents, their tax office and follow Jesus.

Anybody play follow the leader as a kid? What’s the only thing you have to know to play that game – to follow the leader, right? And your position to do so is behind the leader. I used to think that when Jesus told Simon the Rock to “get behind me, Satan,” that it was like being told to go stand in the corner. But I’ve come to realize that Jesus was just telling Peter that in order to follow he had to get behind Jesus, both literally and figuratively. He needed the disciples to have his back because they were going into very dangerous territory. And right up to the bitter end they all swore they were able to follow him anywhere, until they didn’t.
They were plain ordinary folks without degrees or pedigrees, just like you and me, and that’s exactly why they were chosen to be the foundation of the church. Someone once asked Jesus why he ate with sinners, and the answer is that if he didn’t he would always be eating alone.

This story is not just about Simon the Rock. It’s about you and me. If we claim to believe in Christ as the Messiah, the son of the living God, then we are signing up to be the rocks on which Christ’s church is built.
But let’s remember than even the strongest rocks can erode. That big gaping hole in the ground we call the Grand Canyon was carved out of solid rock over centuries by something as soft as the water of the Colorado River.
Church rocks can be worn down by the constant forces of evil that invent new and improved ways to entice us all the time. Like the mortar between rocks our faith needs to be rebuilt in each generation so we can do church in ways that are relevant to current cultural situations.

That takes a team effort. There is a plaque on a large boulder along the 13th fairway at the TPC Scottsdale golf course that commemorates the day in 2011 when Tiger Woods hit a wayward tee shot that ended up right behind that large boulder. Commentators estimated the rock weighs close to a ton, and with his ball lying perhaps 3 feet from the rock there was no way even for Tiger to hit the ball over the rock. That would mean taking a one-stroke penalty for almost every golfer in the world.

But Tiger had two things going for him that most of us don’t. He knew the rules of golf very well.
Rule 6-7: “Stones of any size (not solidly embedded) are loose impediments and may be removed, provided removal does not unduly delay play.”

The rules official determined that the big rock was not “solidly embedded” in the Arizona desert and could therefore be moved legally. But remember the boulder weighed 2000 pounds. Enter ruling #23-1/3: “Spectators, caddies, fellow-competitors, etc., may assist a player in removing a large loose impediment.”
Now many serious golfers might have known about those rules, but very few of us have a large and strong enough group of friends to move a 2000 lb. impediment! Tiger of course always has a large gallery following him around the course, and several fans volunteered to help.

That may seem like a trivial example to non-golfers, but the point is that we all face big problems at times, and we need to know what all of our options are and not just surrender when something unexpected blocks our way. Secondly, none of us are equipped to figure out a solution to every problem, and that means being humble enough to ask for help. Tiger had a resource that I’m glad I don’t have on the golf course—a whole mob of people watching him, and with their help his obstacle was rolled away.

The church is like our gallery –our crowd of fans, people ready and willing to pray for us and help us when we have problems. But guess what? Being a mind reader is not required for church membership or ordination. To get help we have to be humble enough and brave enough to ask. That doesn’t mean every problem can be easily fixed or even quickly prayed away; but the love and support of other people and the assurance of God’s presence with us through dark days can help make any suffering a whole lot easier to bear.

But sometimes we think we’re too far gone or feel God’s too far away to help. And that’s when our troubles double. The temptation to withdraw from others when we need them most is a common human weakness. We don’t want to be a burden or inflict our pain on others, or we’re too embarrassed to admit we have a problem. Another Simon, as in Simon and Garfunkel, wrote a very sad song about that back in the 1960’s, and guess what? It just happens to be called “I Am a Rock.” The chorus to that song says, “I am a rock, I am an island; and a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.”

That’s a pretty bleak picture of life, but we all feel that way sometimes when we just don’t want to risk being hurt again by letting anyone into our hearts. But that’s not really living is it? There’s an alternative to that lonely approach to life from a much older source. John Donne wrote 400 years ago: “No one is an island, Entire of itself, Every one is a piece of the continent, A part of the main….And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

We usually think of that bell tolling in funereal terms, but when we are in community together we also share the joyous bells of celebration. We are all part of the main, and the super glue that holds all of us together is the almighty power of God’s Holy Spirit.

We need each other because Jesus doesn’t promise his followers a rose garden. Following him leads to the Garden of Gethsemane and he’s not looking for fans but cross-taker-uppers. And God knows we will all stumble and fall just like old Rocky Simon Peter.

The church has not always been rock solid for Jesus and the temptation to follow an easier path has to be faced every day. The church in 2017 is not immune to the political divisions of the world. We Christians too often choose up sides to debate controversial issues and sometimes think winning a theological argument is more important than lining up to play follow the leader with Jesus.

That means simply to live like Christ even when that’s very hard. And it’s especially hard to do when personal problems and failures become boulders that seem too heavy to carry. When intimate relationships shatter, when jobs feel like prison sentences, or when there’s no job to be had. When school work seems impossible, or taking care of loved ones exhausting; when chronic illnesses rob us of our strength to carry on. When the world seems to be getting crueler and addictions seems the only way to escape—we all struggle and fail just like not so rock solid Simon.

So when all seems lost and hopeless, please know that you are not alone. All of us feel like our faith is anything but rock solid at times. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from God and from others. No matter how shaky our rocks feel, please hear Jesus’ assurance which he speaks to us just as he did to Peter “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” The victory of good over evil is guaranteed because it’s not our church; it’s not Simon the Rock’s church; it’s Christ’s Church.

Simon’s faith wasn’t always rock solid. Our faith is not always rock solid. But God’s promise is rock solid—solid enough to build a church on, to build your life on, and the gates of hell will never prevail against it.

Preached at Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio, April 2, 2017 as part of a Lenten series, “Set in Stone.”

Spiritual Cardiology


After I wrote my meditation on “A Wise Heart” earlier this week it very quickly became apparent that Psalm 90:12 isn’t finished with me. That verse says, “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart,” and the focus of my earlier post was on having a compassionate and caring heart. It occurred to me shortly after I posted that piece that the heart is also the seat of courage. While head knowledge is incomplete without heart knowledge, neither is adequate without courage.

The hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory” points that out when it says, “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days,” and the turbulent early weeks of 2017 certainly seem like the kinds of days the great preacher Harry Fosdick had in mind when he penned those words. In fact Fosdick wrote that hymn in 1930 just as the Great Depression was beginning and the Nazis were coming to power. I am praying the parallel ends there, but given the political instability and unrest here and around the world present days certainly qualify as those that require wise and brave hearts.

So if we really want wisdom and courage for facing trying hours and days, be they personal or corporate, maybe what we need for Lent is a heart transplant. A few years ago a good friend of mine was scheduled for open heart surgery. I had not been able to visit him in the hospital because I had a cold at the time and my germs were persona non grata. The night before the surgery my friend called me and we talked a few minutes. I don’t remember the content of the conversation, but he told me after the surgery that I was one of many calls he made that night. He understandably had trouble sleeping knowing surgeons were going to cut his chest open the next morning. He was nervous and felt a need to reach out and talk to people who were important in his life not knowing if it might be his last chance to do so.

It seems to me that the act of asking God to give me a new heart is also pretty risky business. My peers remind me often of the wisdom of Mae West who once said, “Aging is not for sissies.” Neither is following Jesus. We are in denial; at least I often am, when I tell myself that when Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me” he was just speaking metaphorically. Living faithfully as Jesus followers in a world gone crazy over materialism, militarism, fear-inspired violence, and self-centered hedonism is not for the faint of heart. To offer the prayer of Psalm 51 asking “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” is a radical prayer and should not be uttered by rote or taken lightly. It’s asking for a spiritual heart transplant.

I always enjoy March Madness of the basketball variety, but this year it is an especially welcome diversion from the madness going on in the world. As I was browsing at our public library this week I came upon a timely and enjoyable audio book about three legendary basketball coaches who all coached in the Atlantic Coast Conference in the 1980’s. The book is appropriately entitled “The Legends” by John Feinstein and is about Dean Smith (UNC), Jimmy Valvano (NC State), and Mike Krzyzewski (Duke). One story early in the book struck me as an excellent example of a brave heart. Dean Smith was one of the greatest coaches in the history of college hoops, but long before he was a legend with a basketball arena named after him, when he was a young, unknown assistant coach at the University of North Carolina in the late 1950’s he put his job and career on the line off the court. He and his pastor took an African American divinity student with them into a segregated restaurant where his basketball team ate frequently and quietly broke down one small racial barrier. When John Feinstein heard about that incident when he was writing his book decades later he asked Coach Smith why he had never heard that story. Feinstein said, “You must have been very proud of doing that.” But Coach Smith said, “You should never be proud of doing the right thing. Just do the right thing.”

Brave and humble hearts don’t need to boast about acting justly, they just do it. Actions speak louder than words about the kind of heart one has. One of my favorite more recent hymns describes how a spiritual heart transplant works. I can’t sing “Here I Am” by Dan Schutte without feeling my heart and faith grow stronger. In one verse Schutte has God say, “I will break their hearts of stone, give them hearts for love alone.” The courage to live boldly and take the narrow unpopular road that leads to salvation and justice comes from hearts filled with so much love that there is no room for fear and doubt.

The journey from fear to faith is often like the one Dorothy and her friends take in “The Wizard of Oz.” Those four pilgrims on the yellow brick road are looking for a heart, for courage, for a brain and a way to go home. Isn’t that a great metaphor for the human condition? Aren’t’ those the things we all long for to live a full and satisfying life?

Dorothy, the tin man, the scarecrow and the lion think they are on an external journey to the promised land of Oz to find themselves. What they discover is that the faith journey is first an internal journey. The Wizard can’t give them what they are seeking, but the pilgrimage they take to the Emerald City provides them a much more transformative trip inward where they all discover that they already have courage, heart, and wisdom; and Dorothy’s red shoes are her ticket back to Kansas.

So the good news is that we don’t need to undergo an actual heart transplant to find our brave voices. Our factory equipment hearts provided by God are full of wisdom, love and courage. But like our physical hearts our spiritual cardio-vascular system can also get clogged up by fear and weakened by lack of use. But no matter how weak or spiritually dead we think we are, no matter how long or how often we have failed to walk the walk of courageous and compassionate faith, Lent is another opportunity to take the inward journey to rediscover the depths of wisdom and courage God provides for the living of this day and every day.

To pray to God for a wise and brave heart is a first step on the journey, like when we realize we need to see a health care provider and live a more heart-healthy lifestyle. And even if we feel spiritually dead with a heart of stone, God is always ready and willing to do CPR or jolt us back to life with a defibrillator. God has an impressive record of bringing people back from both spiritual and physical death.

God nurtured Elijah back to health and courage on Mt. Horeb; gave Jesus the strength he needed to carry on in the Garden of Gethsemane; and turned that bunch of cowering fishermen hiding in the upper room into a band of leaders who turned the world upside down. God gave Ruth the courage to stay with Naomi; helped the Samaritan woman at the well bare her soul to Jesus, and blessed Mary Magdalene with a whole new demon-free life. Brave hearts pray “Not my will but thy will be done. Brave hearts beat to the rhythm of Isaiah’s response to God’s call in the year that King Uzziah died (Isaiah 6) or Mary’s brave response to God’s most incredible request to bear his son. The brave peasant girl said: “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38).

And in Lent 2017 God still asks, “Whom shall I send?” and brave hearts sing (and mean it) the chorus to “Here I am Lord:”

“Here I am Lord! Is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.”

Do we mean it? Do I mean it? Our actions and lives will show the world what kind of hearts we have.

When All is Lost, It’s Not!

HolyLent
“Turn, O LORD! How long?
Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” – Psalm 90:13-14

My Lenten encounter with Psalm 90 has taken a very humbling turn. Focusing on this Psalm during these first few days of Lent has shown me how very little I know about the Psalter, and that is not a good feeling. Maybe I “knew” more about the theology, structure and purpose of the Psalms in my seminary days, but I am embarrassed to admit how little this part of the Hebrew Scriptures has informed my own theological journey over the last four decades.

In particular Psalm 90 has reminded me that like the Pentateuch the book of Psalms is divided into five books. That may not sound terribly relevant to most casual readers of the Bible but it is. The divisions of the Psalms correspond to different historical contexts and the ensuing theological issues God’s people were facing at different points in the long relationship the Hebrew people had with their God. The fact that Psalm 90 is the opening chapter in Book IV of the Psalter is therefore significant as is the fact that it is the only Psalm attributed to Moses.

The plea for God to turn (repent) and have compassion on God’s servants in verses 13-14 is always relevant because we fallible humans are always in need of God’s forgiveness. But this plea is more than a generic mea culpa. Book IV of the Psalms addresses a huge theological crisis for the Hebrew people. When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and carried many of the Hebrews off into exile in 587 BCE the Hebrews lost what had been the three most important elements in the foundation of their faith for hundreds of years: their land, their monarchy and their temple. Book III ends with the plaintive lament asking why God has abandoned them. “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” (89: 46, 49)

It is in response to that desperate plea for compassion from God that Psalm 90 begins by imagining a response from Moses and a time before Israel had land, temple or monarchy, but only God to rely on. One ancient manuscript calls this Psalm “A prayer of Moses the prophet, when the people of Israel sinned in the desert.” That reference is to the golden calf affair in Exodus 32, one of the few other references in all of Scripture where God is asked to repent. In that case Moses begs God to repent of God’s anger toward his rebellious children when they melt down their jewelry to fashion an idol to worship because they can’t wait even 40 days for Moses to come back down from his summit meeting with God. God is so angry that he plans to destroy the people right there in the desert, but Moses convinces God to repent and to keep covenant with his children even though they have broken their promises yet again.

Now in exile the Psalmist is asking God to turn/repent of the judgment on Israel’s sin that has resulted in loss of land, temple and the supposed security of an earthly king. The prophets have tried in vain for decades to warn the people of Israel about placing their faith in the false gods of political power and materialism. Amos is perhaps the most direct and reflects the tenor of those warnings that went unheeded: “Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they have rejected the law of the Lord, and have not kept his statutes, but they have been led astray by the same lies after which their ancestors walked. So I will send a fire on Judah, and it shall devour the strongholds of Jerusalem. Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.” (Amos 2:4-7).

A contemporary prophet and biblical scholar, Walter Brueggmann, describes the current crisis in American Christianity in unsettlingly similar terms: “The crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.” It’s the same message we get when Jesus warns us in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” (Matt. 6:19). From Moses and the prophets to Jesus, the word of God is constant and true, and we still don’t have ears to hear.

That’s why we need Lent every year (or more often). It’s time to ask for God’s compassion on our misplaced principles and values, on our false gods of comfort and prosperity and selfish pride. As individuals, as a church and as a nation Lent is examination time. What do we need to beg God to forgive us for? Where in our lives do we need God’s compassion? And the Psalmist reminds us loud and clear that there is nothing that will truly satisfy our hunger but God’s steadfast love. Even when we lose everything we treasure and value–land, temple, monarchy or whatever our personal versions of those things are, God’s love is constant and eternal. And because it is, even in the exile of fear, loneliness, failing health, economic or political chaos “we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” Thanks be to God.

Prayer for the Human Family

As my regular readers know I have strong political opinions about the current situation in Washington and its repercussions around the world. I strive to make sure those opinions are theologically grounded. After prayerful consideration of the crisis over immigration policy that has unfolded over the weekend I have decided to offer a prayer for unity and compassion for everyone involved rather than add to the often polarizing debate about political positions and constitutional interpretation. The inspiration for this prayer comes from my understanding of Judeo-Christian Scripture but also from a very secular source.

That secular source is from a marketing slogan used by one of my favorite breakfast restaurants, Bob Evans. (Full disclosure note: My son is a V-P in marketing for Bob Evans, but I would like this slogan regardless of family ties.) Our church has been doing a sermon series on myths and sayings that aren’t in the Bible, and I’d like to propose that this one could very well be. The slogan which is on the walls of many of Bob’s restaurants is this: “We treat strangers like friends and friends like family.”

Dear God, creator and sustainer of all creation, God of radical hospitality, you have taught us in Scripture and through Christ and faithful Jesus followers to be people of love. You warn us that it is not enough to love those who love us back, but to love even our enemies and those who persecute us. You have instructed us via prophets and parables all the way back to Leviticus to love our neighbors as ourselves. But we often forget that love of neighbor extends to all the Samaritans and Syrians and Somalis longing to be free.

Forgive us when we forget that your inclusive love requires us to welcome dialogue with our political foes and to enter into those conversations with open minds free from judgment about the motives of others. Help us temper our zeal for justice with open ears that can hear the concerns and fears of those we disagree with. Help us to lower the decibel level of the discourse as we strive to treat others with the same respect we want for ourselves and those we advocate for. Forgive us when we are more concerned with being right than reaching peaceful solutions to complex problems. Gently remind us when we are more determined to win an argument than to know the truth.

Teach us your patience, Lord, and remind us to double and triple check our facts before we post or tweet or share any information that may be counterproductive to the ultimate cause of peace and justice for all of your children. Give us minds that thirst for truth and learn from history, to see the many logs in our own eyes before we judge others about the specks in theirs. We have much in our American history for which we need to repent, O God of mercy. You know us better than we know ourselves. Grant us the courage to search the depths of our own sin. Remind us of our own shameful record of injustice against people of color, women, and our LGBT sisters and brothers. Send your Spirit to help us not be shamed by guilt but to benefit from our past transgressions and from those of others so we can learn and grow in our faith from this political crisis.

Touch our hearts O God in ways that empower us to live up to your high expectations for us. May your Spirit burn within us with a compassion for families that are separated, for students and business travelers stranded in foreign lands, for everyone who fears for their uncertain future. Let us not become so embroiled in the political struggles of our own nation that we surrender to 24/7 news fatigue. Do not let us lose sight of the fact that millions of human lives are at stake and will be impacted by our own action or lack thereof. Do not let us belittle our own significance with a false humility that can silence the voices of the many crying in the wilderness. Do not cease to remind us that we are to treat the stranger in our midst as we would treat our own family and friends, that radical hospitality is not an unreachable ideal or a clever marketing slogan but Gospel Truth.

Lord, there is much fear consuming our nation and world. There is fear for safety and security, fear of political impotence and fear of excessive power. Help us acknowledge and face all those fears with the confidence of your children who know that only perfect love casts out fear. You are the unshakable foundation of our faith and the only true source of perfect love. Without you we cannot imagine how the overwhelming crises of our world can be resolved. But you are the God of exodus and exile, of crucifixion and resurrection. No political crisis has ever silenced your voice. In the tumult and chaos of protests and partisanship, whisper again to us the assurance once more that neither powers nor principalities, death nor life, nor anything else in all creation will ever separate us from your love. Thanks be to God.

Myth Busters: Everything Happens for a Reason, I Corinthians13:8-13

When my son was in high school one of his friends was killed in a terrible car crash. Like most preachers’ kids Matt struggled with the expectations placed on him, especially in the small community where we lived. Unfortunately a well-intended preacher at his friend Shane’s funeral added to Matt’s frustration with the church by telling the folks at the funeral that “everything happen for a reason.”

Like all the myths we’re looking at in this sermon series this one contains some truth and is well-intended but not always helpful. There are several scriptures that can be used to support this myth: Ecclesiastes 3:1 “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Proverbs 16:4 says, “The Lord has made everything for its purpose,
even the wicked for the day of trouble.” Romans 8:28, where Paul says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” But as with all theological statement these verses need to be read in context and with the understanding that the biblical authors were all fallible human beings like us struggling to understand things that just don’t make sense.

At one level it is certainly true that everything happens for a reason. Actions have consequences and they are often unintended or unanticipated. Genetically engineering food and pumping animals full of antibiotics have increased our food supply which is good, but we are learning the hard way the unintended consequences are super bugs resistant to all known medications. Cancer is one of the most difficult plagues on humanity to understand, and we applaud the advances research has made. But we are still not doing enough to prevent various cancers by changing our lifestyles and especially the way we eat. Actions have consequences, and until we stop poisoning our food and air and water we will not find a magic bullet to cure cancer.

Health care in general is a hot topic, and again we can’t just blame God or fate for illnesses but must take proactive steps to live healthier lifestyles. Our aging population in particular is a big challenge. 30% of what is spent on our healthcare in a lifetime occurs in the last year of life, and that is often because our focus is too much on the quantity of life and not its quality. A friend told me recently about his mother. When she was 92 years old and in failing health some of her doctors wanted to amputate both of her legs to keep her alive a little longer. These kinds of costly and unnecessary procedures occur because we are afraid to face the reality that we are all dust and to dust we will return. We need to have important conversations about end of life issues based on values and not economics or fear of our inevitable death.

The good part of this myth that everything happens for a reason is that it is really about trust and faith. When our ability to make sense of things reaches its limits that’s when faith kicks in. The mysteries of life and death challenge us to accept our limitations and to make friends with ambiguity, but too easily accepting this myth short circuits that important process. It can be used to avoid taking a leap of faith into the unknowable mystery of God.

The beautiful words of I Corinthians 13 are most often heard at weddings couched in the romantic notion of love that bears all things and never ends, but that’s not what Paul was about when he wrote this beautiful passage. Remember Paul advised people not to get married if they could avoid it. The preceding Chapter 12 of I Corinthians sets the stage for chapter 13. In Chapter 12 Paul addresses jealousy and arguments the church in Corinth was having about which spiritual gifts were the best. Paul uses the metaphor of the human body to describe different spiritual gifts and challenges the church members to accept their own limits and value the gifts of others. And then at the end of that chapter about the body of Christ, Paul says I will show you a better way to achieve spiritual maturity, the way of love.

In chapter 13 Paul says all the spiritual gifts are temporary and partial. This earthly life, including all of our knowledge will pass away – but inquiring minds want to know now. We don’t to wait! We did the whole wait training thing in Advent and we’re tired of waiting. We want answers to life’s mysteries right now. The human search for knowledge and truth is good up to a point but it always gets us in trouble when we overreach our limits. Ever since Adam and Eve couldn’t resist the forbidden tree of knowledge of good and evil we’ve wanted to know more than our pay grade qualifies us to handle.

Look at what Paul says: “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Now we see only in a mirror dimly, like when you get out of the shower and the mirror is so fogged up you can’t see a thing. But we don’t want to know in part, we want shiny clean mirrors. We want certainty not ambiguity especially when it comes to matters of eternal importance to us. The frustration is that it is those very questions about death and life after death that we cannot have certainty about.

Paul says that to be adults in our faith is to give up our need for certainty. Those who study human development know that at different stages of maturity we are capable of handling different levels of truth. Small children are helpless and need the certainty that concrete and solid answers to their questions provides. They need to know they are cared for and will not be abandoned by the important figures in their lives. They expect parents and other significant adults in their lives to know stuff they don’t understand. Who hasn’t experienced the inquisitive mind of a three year old who wants to know why the sky is blue, and why she needs to brush her teeth and how the dish washer works, and why grandpa is bald? There is no end to their questions. We have a gas fireplace at our house that has no chimney, and every Christmas our grandsons ask us again how Santa can get into our house if there’s no chimney.

A great deal of our education system is based on that same kind of concrete, factual pursuit of knowledge. In school the test questions usually have one correct answer. For instance, if I asked you which letter comes after the letter A in the alphabet, what would the correct answer be? If you said “B” that is correct, but it is only one of 25 correct answers. Young Albert Einstein was asked that question by one of his teachers early in his life, and the teacher was not pleased when he replied, “They all do.” Most of us are not encouraged to think outside the box of concrete certainty as children, but when we become adults we need to adopt grown up thinking which sometimes means admitting we don’t know and can’t know some things yet.

What Paul is telling us is that when it comes to matters of theology a mature faith is one that can look into the ambiguity of a cloudy mirror and still be at peace with the uncertainty of faith. The statement that everything happen for a reason is meant to provide peace of mind by telling us that God is in charge and everything will be ok in the end. But we don’t live at the end of God’s drama when things make sense, we live in the confusion of the present and those words meant to comfort often backfire. Let’s look at some of the reasons that’s the case.

Number 1: If God’s in charge of everything, then we have to blame God for both the good and bad stuff too. This problem is a cousin to the myth that Mebane covered two weeks ago, namely that “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” Both myths imply that God makes bad things happen for some reason we can’t understand. When we are scared and feel out of control, we need assurance that God is, but the downside of that is we have to hold God accountable for all the bad stuff too and there goes any comfort we get from God. Even Wesley’s familiar Covenant service prayer we used here just 3 weeks ago to begin the new year falls into that trap when it says “I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt… Put me to doing, put me to suffering.”

Does God cause suffering? There are certainly places in the Bible that indicate that’s the case, for example the whole book of Job, or God’s punishment by death of Ananias and Sapphira for cheating on their church pledge in Acts 5. Some people are sure God is responsible for the election of Donald Trump, and others of us are wondering if this is God’s punishment for the sins of our nation. It obviously can’t be both. Did God give Clemson a victory in the Fiesta Bowl and cause the agony of defeat for OSU? Is God causing the unbelievable suffering in Syria or for the refugees trying to escape that mayhem?

Of course not. We worship a God of love, and the biblical accounts of God’s direct intervention in punishing people were the best answers the people in biblical times could give to some of the most mysterious and difficult questions in creation. We still struggle with those same questions today, and will until we see God “face to face.” Until then we can only know in part.

Number 2: The second problem with this myth is that if we surrender all control of everything that happens to God we absolve ourselves of all responsibility for human causes of suffering or injustice. Rev. Adam Hamilton who has written about these myths in his book “Half Truths” says a friend sent him this comment from a Facebook meme: “Yes, everything happens for a reason, but sometimes the reason is you’re stupid and make bad decisions.” Our actions have consequences. My son’s friend died not because an all-powerful God willed it so, but because of poor judgment and excess speed by a teen aged driver.

Blaming God or the devil or someone else for all our problems pushes us into the dangerous territory of going into victim mode. Woe is me, everybody hates me! The world is against me! We cannot control external events that happen to us, but with God’s help we can control how we react. Do we learn from our mistakes and those of others or waste a learning opportunity? To go victim robs us of chances to reflect and learn and to use adversity to strengthen instead of weaken our faith. It’s hard to increase our faith when we’re angry and blaming the very God who could be our greatest source of strength in time of trouble. That’s not to say we can’t be angry at God or our circumstances. Anger is one of the natural stages of grief. God can handle our anger and isn’t going to abandon us or punish us for being mad. It’s just when we stay angry too long that we multiply our suffering.

Blaming God for our suffering is also costly because it robs us of one of the greatest gifts God has given us, our free will. Sure, sometimes it feels like we’d be better off without free will if we could avoid suffering, but that’s not true. We cannot achieve our full humanity if God is just a puppeteer and we are robots or marionettes. God gives us freedom of choice so we can experience the joy of growth and doing good. Without freedom there is no ability to choose love, and as Paul teaches us, Love is the greatest gift of all that lasts when knowledge and prophesy are no more.

Number 3: And that brings us to the 3rd problem with the myth that everything happens for a reason. When we see knowledge and the ability to explain everything as our purpose in life we are treading on the thin ice of wanting to be like God. We want answers and we want them right now. Adam and Eve had everything they could ever need in the Garden of Eden, but their desire to be like God cost them everything. Worshipping absolute answers makes it impossible for us to live by faith and put our trust in the God who is beyond all human comprehension.

So what do we do instead of telling people in pain that “everything happens for a reason?” We recently attended a funeral for a 33 year old army vet who got hooked on pain meds because of a back injury he got in the service. On New Year’s Day Alex finally lost his battle with addiction. He left a young widow and a sweet four-year-old daughter named Hope. How do you tell his friends and family that all this happened for a reason and expect that to help? You don’t. It was the first Jewish funeral I’ve ever attended and I was impressed with what the Rabbi said instead. He quoted Rabbi Harold Kushner who published a book entitled “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” 20 years ago. It’s still the best thing I’ve ever read on this subject.

The title of the book is not WHY bad things happen but WHEN because they happen to everyone sooner or later. And essentially what Kushner says is that “Why” is not really a question in these cases, it is a cry of pain. And we all know what to do when someone is in pain. They don’t need answers, they need comfort. They need someone to love them, to walk with them through the valley of the shadow of death. We don’t have to say anything; we just have to love.

If we had the answers to suffering we could use them, but we don’t. We are not God. We see in a mirror dimly, and that’s ok, because Paul assures in Romans 8, just us as Jesus did, that God is with us always and nothing in all creation can ever separate us from that love. So “faith, hope and love abide these three, but the greatest of these is love.”

In his play “J.B.” based on the book of Job, Archibald McLeish puts it this way. J.B.’s wife is trying to help him struggle with the why question about his unbelievable suffering, and she says to him “The problem J.B. is that you are looking for justice and there is none. There is only love.” When we are hurting or those close to us, that love is all we need, and it lasts forever.

Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio, January 22, 2017

Lighting the Christ Candle:

During the Advent season, we have waited like expectant parents for God to deliver – to show up in the big brown truck with the promised gifts of hope, peace, joy and love. We wait in a world that has never needed those gifts more. And God hides the gifts in plain sight, in Bethlehem, right where the prophets told us they would be. And like every year, we’re surprised, still not convinced that God’s Messiah should be born in a barn.

Tonight our waiting is rewarded as we celebrate again the eternal gift of unconditional love and the marvelous ways God leads us to the Light of the World. God showed the shepherds and the magi the way to Bethlehem. And tonight God is showing us the Way again.

We light the Christ Candle on this holy night to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the Light of the World. He has led us here and calls us to follow him on a marvelous journey of seeking, finding, waiting, hoping and growing.

Prayer:

O eternal God, forgive us when we doubt that a peasant boy of low estate could possibly overcome our fearful and divided world. When our skepticism threatens to overwhelm us, wrap us in the warm swaddling cloths of hope, peace, joy and love. We have waited and prayed for your Messiah. Now it’s time for us to receive the most precious gift ever and to be the light of Christ to warm and heal broken lives and our darkened world. In the holy name of the one we celebrate this night, Amen.